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Chile’s American Desaparecido

In this guest post, Mary Helen Spooner, author of The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile after Pinochet (UC Press, June 2011) sheds light on the chilling case of Professor Boris Weisfeiler, one of thousands who disappeared during Pinochet’s regime.


Professor Boris Weisfeiler

Professor Boris Weisfeiler

Chile’s American Desaparecido
by Mary Helen Spooner

He was respected mathematician who had published over three dozen research papers and an experienced backcountry trekker, with solo expeditions to Siberia, Peru, Alaska and Canada under his belt. In 1975 he left the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States, where he was quickly hired by Ivy League universities. In 1981 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. On Christmas Day 1984 he arrived in Chile to go backpacking in the southern Andes, and ten days later he vanished.

An initial Chilean police report said Penn State University professor Boris Weisfeiler drowned while trying to cross a river. But declassified U.S Embassy cables on the case suggest Weisfeiler had been arrested by either police or an army patrol and taken to Colonia Dignidad, a secretive German settlement in southern Chile frequently used by the Pinochet regime’s security forces.

An informant who said he was a member of the military patrol that arrested Weisfeiler reported that the mathematician had been interrogated, tortured and finally executed at the heavily armed colony, which Chilean authorities finally raided in 2005, some fifteen years after the country had returned to elected civilian rule. Police discovered the largest private arsenal ever found in Chile, including three containers with rocket launchers and automatic weapons and a second cache with more rocket launchers and hand grenades. And for over two decades Weisfeiler’s sister Olga has been searching for answers, making repeated visits to Chile and meeting with Chilean authorities and U.S. Embassy officials. She has retraced her brother’s route along the river where police claimed to have found his backpack. This month she makes her tenth trip to Santiago, timing the visit to coincide with that of President Barack Obama, who she hopes will discuss her brother’s disappearance with his Chilean counterpart, Sebastian Pinera.

“I am going to see the new U.S. Ambassador, the new Consul General, the new legal attache,” she told me. She also wants to meet with the Chilean investigators assigned to her brother’s case, which has been meandering its way through the country’s courts since 2000, when the U.S. documents were released. It would seem a simple matter of finding and interviewing the police and army officers on duty in the area at the time of Weisfeiler’s disappearance, and a succession of four different judges have been assigned to the case. But as the years pass, potential witnesses have died, or lost their memories (sometimes intentionally). The last witness who reported seeing Weisfeiler, a local peasant farmer, was found hanging from a bridge a year after the mathematician’s disappearance in what U.S. Embassy officials described as “mysterious circumstances.”

On her last visit Olga Weisfeiler submitted a statement on her brother’s case to Chile’s newly reopened human rights commission. And last June a bipartisan group of 54 members of congress sent a letter to Chilean president Sebastian Pinera requesting his support for the inquiry into Weisfeiler’s disappearance.

And this month Senator Scott Brown and Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts sent letters to President Obama urging him to raise the issue during his meeting with President Pinera. The FBI has offered technical assistance, but Chilean authorities have yet to accept this offer.

Olga, who has never given up hope of finding out what happened to her brother, said she is not sure what to expect at this point. “Sometimes I feel it is a never-ending investigation, especially without any pressure from our authorities,” she said.

For more information, visit the Weisfeiler family’s website.

Mary Helen Spooner is a journalist who began working in Latin America in 1977, including nine years as a foreign correspondent in Chile. She has reported for ABC News, The Economist, The Financial Times of London, and Newsweek. She is the author of Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile (UC Press).

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